Hwang speaks to reporters
Chung Sung-jun  /  Getty Images
South Korean stem cell researcher Hwang Woo-suk achieved rock star status for his claims. But in the end, he left his post at Seoul National University in disgrace.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/3/2006 6:21:25 PM ET 2006-01-03T23:21:25

So now the truth is out — South Korean veterinarian Hwang Woo-suk is a liar. The researcher who told the world in print, at lectures delivered all over the world and at endless press conferences that he had done what no other scientist had been able to do — clone human embryos from cells taken from many different people and produce embryonic stem cell lines from each cloned embryo — made it all up.

Hwang perpetrated the greatest scientific fraud, not just of 2005, but of the admittedly still young twenty-first century. Future contenders for that most dubious of distinctions, and there undoubtedly will be a few, are going to have to really work to lay claim to the title of biggest scientific hoaxer, given Hwang’s skullduggery.

The gradual unraveling of Hwang’s web of deceit has caused a moral tsunami in the world of stem cell research. Those who allied themselves with Hwang, such as the University of Pittsburgh’s cloning expert Gerald Schatten and those who helped birth Hwang’s now disgraced World Stem Cell Hub, have been left holding a very malodorous bag of smoke, lies and obfuscations.

The prestigious journals Science and Nature, which throughout the past year published some of the key papers by Hwang, find themselves besieged by questions about the adequacy of their peer review and the thoroughness of their editorial processes. World-class scientists involved with embryonic stem cell research are wringing their hands over what Hwang’s shenanigans will do to their efforts to raise money so they can try to use stem cells to both understand and cure a variety of diseases.

There is one group that has taken particular delight in Hwang’s fall from scientific grace — those who have opposed embryonic stem cell research ever since they learned that human embryos were involved. The pages of conservative magazines and blogs have erupted in a frenzy of we-told-you-so's as the anti-stem-cell lobby strains mightily to use Hwang’s fraud to impugn the entire field of stem cell research. And the press releases of conservative Catholic and Evangelical Christian groups show no hesitancy in attempting to profit from the misfortune of others. They too are now prattling on about how Hwang’s deceit shows that every embryonic stem cell researcher and research proponent has long wallowed in sin.

But it is time for some straight talk about what Hwang’s admission of fraud in obtaining stem cells from cloned human embryos really means.

How did Hwang get away with his misconduct? Did the peer review process really fail? Could any safeguards really have prevented Hwang from perpetrating his fraud or stop future charlatans from doing the same? And, as some are suggesting, is one scientist’s fraud really likely to undercut the future of embryonic stem cell research forever?

Did he really think he'd get away with it?
Let’s start with the easiest question — how did Hwang think he could get away with hoaxing the entire world?

Well despite a lot of hand-wringing, Hwang did not get away with it. He made his cloning claims last May. Within seven months the fraud was revealed and Hwang had been forced to leave his post at Seoul National University. Science has a much better track record for rapidly weeding out liars than, say, journalism, law, business or religion.

Still he almost pulled it off. So why did he think he could?

My guess is that he figured if he claimed he had been the first to make viable stem cell lines from cloned human embryos then all he needed to do was hang on until another scientist really did. If he could use his authority and position to bully his colleagues into silence and keep the physical evidence of his chicanery under lock and key just long enough for someone else to really make stem cells from cloned embryos then he could win a race without actually having to run the course.

He based his fraud on his faith that someone else somewhere in the world — in China, India, Britain, Singapore, Sweden or California — would quickly succeed at getting stem cells from cloned embryos. Then, what they had actually been the first to do would become nothing more than a second — a confirmation of what Hwang had supposedly already accomplished. Once confirmed no one would have any reason to suspect that what the scientific journals had accepted on the basis of personal integrity — which they must do with every paper submitted to them — would never be challenged.

Not a bad plan if it were really true that cloning human embryos is easy to do. That is where Hwang went wrong. It isn’t. In fact it has proven very hard to clone many animals including most monkeys. While human embryonic cloning will happen, it may not happen for years.

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No rock stars in science
If this was Hwang's plan then why did his colleagues take him down? In the hierarchical system that is South Korean science where did they find the courage, the moxie, the simple chutzpah to take on a boss who had grown to rock star proportions overnight?

Partly, Hwang was outed as a faker because his colleagues had a sense of integrity. No matter how much fame Hwang attained and no matter how much money the South Korean government threw at Hwang and his team, Hwang’s colleagues knew he was not being forthcoming. But I think the cornucopia of rewards and honors, including the designation of Hwang as the first and more than likely only "supreme scientist" by the South Korean government, may have been what pushed his colleagues over the top.

Science is not really comfortable with mega-celebrity. Some of it is that big egos are quick to put someone getting a fat head in their place. Some of the distaste for celebrity derives from the fact that science is a social activity not the province of any single individual. As Hwang’s phony star grew and grew it carried the seeds of his own destruction.

So that leaves the question of whether Hwang’s demise spells the end for embryonic stem cell research. This is where the critics have not a clue.

Whistling in the dark
Fraud, while terrible, is not a sin that adheres to a theory or to a field of research. It is a problem that clings to an individual, not a line of scientific inquiry. Those writing that Hwang’s fraud spells the end for stem cell research, and most of them have almost no knowledge of what science is or how it really works, are whistling in the dark of their own ignorance.

Over the years there have been incredible, monstrous frauds perpetrated in geology, paleontology, physics, cancer research, immunology, psychiatry, ophthalmology and psychology, from Piltdown Man to Cyril Burt’s claims about the heritability of IQ. But none, not one, resulted in the end of inquiry or the demise of real science.

No one can suggest that embryonic stem cell research is not real science. You can argue about the ethics and even complain about the hype but the science is there if we wish to do it. No fraud, not even one as widely witnessed as Hwang’s, changes that fact one iota.

At the end of the day the system worked. Hwang was outed. Cloning was shown to be as tough a strategy for obtaining stem cells as most experts had thought it was. Still, Hwang almost pulled off his great charade.

Science like all other human endeavors such as the professoriate, the priesthood or the military is only as strong as its weakest links. And that will be true long after the critics and the proponents of embryonic stem cell research find out whether it really can do anyone any good.

Arthur Caplan is director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.

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